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Consortium to Study Ocean Potential for Carbon Storage

Light-emitting phytoplankton (Scripps Institution of Oceanography/NASA)

Light-emitting phytoplankton (Scripps Institution of Oceanography/NASA)

The new ISIS (In-Situ Iron Studies) Consortium announced today its plans to study the role of iron in regulating the ocean’s capacity to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide.  The group of scientists from 12 institutions worldwide aims to better understand the impact of iron on marine ecosystems and to quantify its potential for CO2 removal.

The consortium notes that iron fertilization has so far been done mainly in research projects aimed at testing its effectiveness to stimulate plankton growth in limited areas of the ocean. Single-celled phytoplankton are organisms that float on or near the surface of the water. All phytoplankton use photosynthesis for their energy, but some get additional energy by consuming other organisms.

In addition to ‘macronutrients’ such as phosphate and nitrate, phytoplankton also need ‘micronutrients’ such as iron. However, large tracts of the sunlit surface ocean are iron deficient, which limits phytoplankton growth. In these areas, iron can serve as a large lever on carbon sequestration.

Deliberate iron fertilization involves adding iron — usually chemical-grade iron sulfate — to an area of the sea in an effort to promote the growth of plankton, which, through photosynthesis, use CO2 in the surface to produce organic carbon. When they die, a small fraction of this carbon sinks to the ocean depths where it can remain locked away for decades or even centuries.

The ISIS group plans to conduct an international scientific appraisal of iron and its impacts, intended and unintended, and its ability to sequester carbon and thus impact atmospheric CO2. The appraisal will involve further studies on both deliberate and natural fertilizations at larger scales of up to several hundred kilometers across, monitoring for months or years.

The consortium will follow internationally accepted practices regulating ocean iron fertilization research being developed under the London Convention/London Protocol. The group anticipates using numerous and powerful tools, including supercomputers, to help design the experiments.

The 12 participating institutions from the U.S., China, U.K., Netherlands, and Australia include:

  • Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, Australia
  • National Oceanography Centre, United Kingdom
  • Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, U.S.
  • Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
  • School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii, U.S.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S.
  • University of Maine, U.S.
  • University of Massachusetts Boston, U.S.
  • University of Plymouth, Marine Institute, United Kingdom
  • University of Rhode Island, U.S.
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, U.S.
  • Xiamen University, China

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